3 Ways to Build a Massive Email List

There’s a lot of basic advice out there about how to build an email list, and it all seems to focus on tiny tweaks and conversion rates.

“Adding this pop-up increased our subscription rate 20%!”

“Changing our call-to-action buttons to yellow increased newsletter signups 5%!”

That’s all fine and well, if your email newsletter list is fewer than 100 people, we’re looking at some pretty small numbers despite the optimizations.

We need more posts about how to drive massive growth on your email list, so that’s what we’re trying to tackle today. Here are three big ideas for how you can increase your email list size or build it from the ground up.

1. Referral Programs

Referral marketing is essentially word-of-mouth marketing. But, businesses can use certain strategies to incentivize customers to spread the word about their companies. This is great for email acquisition.

One of the best recent examples of a referral marketing program for driving email acquisition that I’ve seen is from Harry’s. They gathered 100,000 emails in a week (seriously) using a referral marketing campaign.

This blog post in Four Hour Work Week describes the campaign. It’s a must-read.

The post describes the step-by-step process for coming up with the concept of the campaign, it includes the email copy they used, and they even give away the code for their landing pages in the post too. It’s a long one, though – so get cozy and grab a snack.

In case you want just the gist, here are five things you need to know about this awesome campaign.

1) Credible referrals are the best introductions. This inspired the campaign.

The idea for the campaign was built around the belief that the best way to be introduced to a new company was through a credible referral.

2) They (A LOT) of met people in person, and that’s how they got the first hundred or so emails.

Before the launch, the founders met with basically anyone and everyone who would listen to them talk about Harry’s. Even if those people were not necessarily interested in razors, they tried to interest them in the company story. From these meetings, they grew a list of about 100 people before the launch. Essentially, the referral campaign was created to better help those people share the excitement of the company launch.

3) If users shared the campaign, they could earn free products. This is how it went viral.

To explain this one, you have to be familiar with the campaign design.

The user interface of the campaign was pretty simple. It was a two-page microsite. The first page was a splash page. As you can see below, it has a great design, a clear call to action, and a place where people could put in their emails.


The next page was the referral piece.


It had a shareable link to the splash page that was coded specifically for each user for better tracking. The page had share buttons for Twitter, Facebook, and email sharing.

Here’s the kicker: By sharing the link with friends, users could earn free product from Harrys. The more friends that signed up through shared links, the more products that user earned.

4) They made sharing as easy as possible.

Clicking the Twitter, Facebook, and email icons on the landing page pulled up a dialogue box with a pre-populated message. This removed a barrier to sharing for the user.

Their message was “Excited for @harrys to launch. I’m going to be #shaving for free.” Then, they had a shortened link back the campaign site.

These are some things they kept in mind when coming up with their message:

  • Make it simple
  • Don’t make it too sales-y. Make it something that people would actually share.
  • Be a little mysterious. The point is to get people to click the campaign link.
  • Include a mention of the company or product
  • Include a link to the campaign (duh)

5) They leveraged their army of 12 employees.

Harry’s had a team of 12 employees to help them seed this campaign to friends and family through email and social media. And when I say “friends and family”, I mean all of their Gmail contacts. They did not hold back on their outreach for this campaign.

If you’re going to do something like this, it’s important to be prepared to handle the work that is to come after the campaign goes live. In the post, Jeff Raider (Harry’s founder) mentions that the real work began when they had to get razors to everyone who participated in the campaign. It’s a good problem to have, of course, but still a huge problem if you are not prepared for it. This is just something to think about before deploying a campaign like this.

2. Newsletter Ad Buys

Publishers are monetizing their newsletters by selling ad inventory in their emails, and it spells major opportunity for marketers.

Going Through An Ad Exchange

You can work with an ad exchange like Live Intent to get your ads placed in email newsletters and get your company in front of tens of thousands of potential subscribers.

Here’s an example of how ads like this can work for email acquisition. Homegoods retailer Joss and Main had an ad placed in Real Simple magazine’s newsletter.

Real Simple is a great audience for them. Real Simple talks about stuff related to Joss and Main’s products – home decorating, organization, and other lifestyle topics. Basically, if Joss and Main had a blog, you’d probably expect it to be a lot like Real Simple Magazine. The ad feels natural there.

real-simple-newsletter-example-1 2

When you click through the ad, you’re let to an email acquisition page on the Joss and Main site.


Even though the Joss and Main site is a gated site to begin with, this appears to be a landing page built specifically for this campaign to make it extra easy to measure the acquisition ROI of these campaigns.

Brands Offer Ad Space Too

Here’s another interesting idea to consider: Nowadays, brands are publishers, too. Some companies, like Learnvest, actually sell ad space on their blogs or in their newsletters. If there is a company whose content you like that you think you’d like to collaborate with, see if they offer advertising opportunities like this. Whoever runs business development may have some answers, or may be willing to set up some kind of partnership – either paid or free.

3. Contests

Contests are a great way to incentive people to sign up for your email list.

I offer this suggestion with a word of caution, though. These subscribers may be more likely to unsubscribe soon after the contest is over because they are most interested in signing up for your list for the free giveaways. However, if you go into these contests with a clear nurturing plan for these new subscribers, you will be able to retain the majority of them and the contest will still be well worth your time.

One of the best tools out there for online giveaways is Rafflecopter. Rafflecopter creates embeddable widgets that publishers can place in blog posts to run giveaways.

Here’s what they look like:


You can set the rules to be any number of things – leaving a blog comment, sharing a blog post, or, yes, subscribing to an email list. The publisher widgets are great to use if you want to partner with a blogger for a campaign. Or, if you have a well-trafficked blog of your own, you can use it to run giveaways on your own site, too.

Rafflecopter also offers Facebook contest tools to help you grow both your page (through “like gating”) and your email list.

Rafflecopter isn’t free – it’s $59.99 a month, or $599 if paid annually. It’s something to keep in mind, although, it’s right in the ballpark of what it’d cost for other acquisition channels.

What other ideas do you have for building massive email lists? Let us know in the comments.


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